There are joys in a liberal arts education. Among them, is a wider knowledge of the amazing thing that is the English language. Which allows a reader to revel in a richness. It is surely one of humankind’s greatest creations.
One joy of the English language is the collective noun, the words we use for groups of things. Prosaically, a flock of geese, or a herd of cattle. More fancifully and delightfully, a murder of crows, or an unkindness of ravens. Or An Exaltation of Larks. Which is the title of James Lipton’s superb collection of collective nouns. Some trace back to the 15th Century, some are his inventions; some are inventions of the readers of his earlier editions.
An ostentation of peacocks.
A skulk of foxes.
A wince of dentists.
An unction of undertakers.
All of this comes to mind because WC was out in the Snake River Plain, scouting and photographing birds, and encountered a murmuration of starlings.
The starlings – an introduced species that now breeds across all of North America – were foraging on leftover apples in the orchard in the foreground.
A cast of hawks.
A tidings of magpies.
A charm of finches.
A parliament of owls.
And when you encounter a murmuration of starlings, you will understand the collective noun. When the birds lift off, the sound of their wings is exactly that, exactly a murmur of sound, not loud but very clear.
WC’s 12th grade AP English teacher, Eve Kozloski, introduced WC to Lipton and his wonderful book. But Lipton is hardly the first person to aggregate collective nouns; he cites to sources like Dame Juliana Barnes’ The Book of St. Albans. Dame Barnes was the prioress of the nunnery at Sopewell, England, and published her collection in 1476. An Dame Barnes wasn’t the first.
A pride of lions.
A blast of hunters.
A shrewdness of apes.
A leap of leopards.
And these are just some of the 1,100 plus collective nouns Lipton assembles. If you love language, WC predicts you will love An Exaltation of Larks. And a murmuration of starlings, if you have the chance to see one.1
- Thanks to reader J.D. for pointing out a couple of errors. In particular, WC had the book (and collective noun) in mind as “Exultation,” not “Exultation.” J.D. is right, in Middle English it was “exaltacyon of larkys.” But that’s the viewer’s reaction to the flock of birds; it’s the birds acting, and it seems to WC to be an exultation by the birds. ↩